Reaching menopause before age 50 may increase your chances of developing cardiovascular disease, a new study suggests. For instance, the researchers found that women who reached menopause when they were 40 to 44 years old were 40 percent more likely to have a nonfatal cardiovascular problem, such as angina, a heart attack or stroke, before age 60 than were women who reached menopause at age 50 or 51. Reaching menopause at 45 to 49 corresponded to a 17 percent increased risk. The findings, published in the Lancet: Public Health, are based on an analysis of data from 15 studies, involving 301,438 women in the United States, Britain, Australia, Japan and Scandinavia, spanning nearly 70 years.

Menopause, when a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 months, is a normal part of aging and, on average, occurs at age 51. The study did not determine why cardiovascular problems were more prevalent among women who experienced menopause before age 50, but it noted that the drop in estrogen levels that accompanies menopause may play a role in this. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, accounting for 1 in 5 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the American Heart Association points out that menopause does not cause cardiovascular disease. Rather, it says, certain risk factors increase at this stage of a woman’s life: Blood pressure tends to go up, as do levels of LDL cholesterol (the “bad” type) and triglycerides. Other life factors that are not heart-healthy — such as smoking, getting too little exercise and being overweight — may also contribute. The bottom line for women reaching menopause? Health experts suggest focusing on what you can control — these risk factors — to keep cardiovascular disease at bay.